Drawing Lines in the Sand

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A conversation with a director I had been doing some mentoring work with recently got me thinking about the question of the circumstances in which a director should draw a line in the sand. Metaphorically, that is. The only circumstance I can think of when you might need to do that literally would be if you were rehearsing on a desert island and didn’t have any manuscript paper.

The circumstance the director was dealing with was a singer who had a medical condition that was manifesting in ways that interrupted both rehearsals and performances. It was potentially treatable, but she wasn’t at that point engaging with the treatment, which in the first instance did rather diminish the sympathy I felt.

But, you know, it turns out when you think through this scenario that it doesn’t actually make as much difference to the director’s decision-making process as you might think. It is tempting to think of a chorister’s shortfalls in terms akin to the Victorian distinction between deserving and undeserving poor: some problems are visited upon by people by fate and thus deserve to be treated more charitably than those that are self-inflicted.

But - much as it can be argued in welfare policy - there may be a moral argument to treat these circumstances differently, but the practical steps you take are pretty much the same.

So, the big question was: does the director continue to work around the interruptions, or do they ask that the singer make changes - e.g. stepping down from the higher-profile performances, and/or making more effort to engage with the treatment available? And it comes down to this: is the director prepared to lose the singer from the choir?

Because once you draw a line in the sand, you are defining the place at which your willingness to compromise ends, and thus forcing the other person to decide where theirs also lies. Once you say, ‘We can’t carry on like this,’ you give the other person the power to decide whether to carry on differently, or not to carry on at all. And it may be that it is better they leave than carry on as they have been, but you need to be clear how you feel about this before your draw the line.

And the way you decide this is to refer back to your choir’s values. Is the primary purpose of the choir mutual support through making music together? In which case, you can’t ask someone who is otherwise keen to limit their participation over something like this. Is the primary purpose of the choir to aspire to excellence in performance? Then you can’t ask all the other singers to accept ongoing disruption to their efforts.

It is the overall ethos and goals of the choir, that is, that determines how you respond to an individual member’s problematic behaviours, not the extent to which you consider that member personally at fault.

It’s much the same as the question of attendance, and whether an absence is ‘justified’. Nobody ever misses a rehearsal for a reason they themselves think is flakey or unreasonable, and whether they are skipping rehearsal to save the life of an orphaned dolphin or to go out on the razzle with a gigolo is actually immaterial to the effect their absence has on the rest of the choir.

This is not to say that one should be without compassion. Of course it is better to work with people to help them achieve what they need to for the choir than to boot them out at the first sign of trouble. But it is to say that when you need to draw a line in the sand, it needs to be done with reference to the choir’s core values, not to the individual’s particular circumstances.

And this is important not just for the choir as whole, but also for the individual concerned. If everyone knows the rationale behind a decision, then nobody has to take it personally. The choir as a whole won’t worry that someone is getting either preferential treatment or being hard done by. And the individual will find it easier to make a clear decision as to whether they feel able to make the changes being asked of them if they are not feeling under personal attack.

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